risky business

'No End' helmer fires an op-ed video salvo

Like the modern-day equivalent of 18th century pamphleteers, documentary filmmakers have plunged into the center of national debates over such issues as health care ("Sicko") and the environment ("An Inconvenient Truth"). But nowhere have the debates been more passionate than in the rash of documentaries about the Iraq War.

Charles Ferguson's "No End in Sight," which was released July 27, offers an intellectually rigorous dissection of the policy decisions that led to the Iraq quagmire. And now Ferguson has taken his ability to mount a cinematic argument one step further: In response to a recent op-ed piece by Paul Bremer, the former head of the Coalition Provisional Authority in Iraq, defending the decision to disband the Iraqi army, Ferguson has fashioned a 12-minute, filmed op-ed piece of his own that has recently been posted online by the New York Times.

One of the central points in Ferguson's documentary is that the decision to disband the army was made by a small circle of Pentagon civilians without consulting the civilian and military officials on the ground in Iraq. As a consequence, many of the unemployed soldiers turned to the insurgency.

The issue reignited last week with the publication of Robert Draper's presidential biography "Dead Certain," in which President Bush claimed to have been surprised by the decision.

Lest he become another administration fall guy, Bremer published his defense Sept. 6 in the Times, writing, "In fact, the policy was carefully considered by top civilian and military members of the American government, and it was the right policy."

Reading Bremer's words, Ferguson said, "Frankly, I was stunned." He was reminded, he said, of how Mary McCarthy once said of her rival Lillian Hellman, "Every word she writes is a lie, including and and the." In his docu, such officials as Gen. Jay Garner, who headed the Office of Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance for Iraq following the invasion, and Col. Paul Hughes, director of strategic policy for ORHA, directly contradict Bremer's contentions.

So Ferguson immediately called back the two editors who worked with him on the film to construct a fresh response to Bremer, using material from "No End" as well as footage that hadn't made it into the film. He also conducted fresh audio interviews with Garner and Hughes.

Working over a long weekend, Ferguson assembled a point-by-point refutation of Bremer's position, insisting that it would have been politically and logistically feasible to enlist the Iraqi army to keep the peace. Says Hughes in the new film, "If the military had been kept together and treated with respect, we could have nipped the insurgency in the bud."

Says Ferguson, "At the end of viewing this video, it would be extremely difficult to understand how Bremer truly and honestly holds his position."

Ferguson's quick video dispatch is worth viewing; the director argues that the filmed response packs more punch than any written op-ed piece he could have composed.

But "No End," released in July by Magnolia Pictures, paints the larger picture. "I think this is one film that has the White House spooked," Magnolia president Eamonn Bowles says, "because these are administration people speaking (in the film), many of them Republicans, who now say the policy was misguided."

Magnolia has given the docu a slow rollout — it has reached 108 theaters and grossed slightly more than $1 million — but Bowles expects that it should play well into October. By then, the engaging film also will have to be considered a major awards-season contender.